Several other Foreign Service bloggers are putting forth posts on the five pros and cons of their city/country. This might be a post better written with more time under my belt, but what the heck, here it is:
1. Things to do. There is no shortage of things to do in your spare time in Shanghai. Are you into museums? Shanghai reportedly has over 70 museums with something for everybody. These include large world-class spaces such as the China Art Museum, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the Shanghai Museum, and the newly reopened, refurbished Shanghai Natural History Museum. Yet you can also find lesser known museums such as the Shanghai Post Museum, the Shanghai Museum of Glass, the Shanghai Museum of Public Security, and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which is so much cooler and fascinating than its title leads one to believe. There are also the little one or two room gems such as the Propaganda Poster Museum or the Shanghai Chopsticks Museum.
Are you interested in history? Although Shanghai cannot compete with the 600+ year history of Beijing, its history is nonetheless fascinating. Stroll through tree lined streets of the former International Settlement or French Concession area to see beautiful homes from the 1920s and 1930s during Shanghai’s celebrated and turbulent coming of age. Or stroll along the iconic Bund on a sunny day and contemplate the historic waterfront, then turn to look across the Huangpu River at the modern high rises of Pudong.
Do you like hills and nature? You might not believe it but Shanghai’s highest peak, Sheshan Hill, is surrounded by Sheshan National Forest Park and the 10 acre Chenshan Botanical Garden, one of the largest in the world, is nearby. You can also find restored Shikumen, a type of residential neighborhood popularized in Shanghai in the early 20th century, with winding narrow lanes filled with boutique stores and restaurants. The most famous are Xintiandi and TianziFang. Within Shanghai limits you can visit several ancient water towns, think Venice with a Chinese flair. There is a zoo and an aquarium and a wild animal park. If you like amusement parks Shanghai has several with the Shanghai Disneyland set to open in early 2016.
Of course there are also restaurants and bars galore serving all manner of cuisines and atmosphere. For kids there are indoor play areas, parks, and summer camps. If you like to watch sports you might be interested in Shanghai’s Formula One or the Rolex Masters. If you like to participate there is anything from tai chi in the park to the international marathon. There are even several vertical marathons, given Shanghai also boasts some of the highest buildings in the world. There are world-class stages where you may to see such performances as Chinese Opera or Katy Perry.
It is quite obvious I could go on and on and on. Yet I do not have the space and unfortunately even if you stayed here more than one tour, you would be hard pressed to see and do it all.
2. Housing. You will not be disappointed with your home in Shanghai. A common complaint in the Foreign Service is the Drexel Heritage furniture that you find wherever you go, whether posted to Jakarta or Juarez or Tbilisi or Timbuktu, but here in Shanghai you get a break from Drexel (or DrexHell as some lovingly call it) as all the housing is furnished in house. All are serviced apartments or villas with at least twice weekly housecleaning service. The amenities and conveniences in each of the housing options are numerous. Whatever your day brings you, your home in Shanghai is nice to return to.
3. Travel. Even with the incredible number of things to do in Shanghai you do occasionally need to get out of town. No problem. Shanghai has four main rail stations that will take you to famous nearby destinations such as Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing. The high speed rail will whisk you to Beijing in only five hours. Or head to one of Shanghai’s two international airports and head off to Chengdu to see pandas or Hainan Island for beaches or any number of incredible Chinese destinations. Or if you are tired of China, flights out of Pudong head to over 70 international destinations, with frequent flights to Southeast Asia.
4. Energy. There is a spirit and energy in Shanghai that is infectious. Although entrepreneurship is not easy in China, and sometimes the local government runs afoul of Beijing, people in Shanghai are making things happen. There is a buzz and hum to the streets. Seeing some of the tallest buildings in the world rise up to the sky and beautiful feats of architecture and innovation in the form of incredible new museums is astounding. When I first visited Shanghai in 2002 there were three metro lines with a total of 35 stations, today there fourteen lines with a total of 337 stations. People in Shanghai are literally moving and shaking! There are most certainly many wealthy people in the city (see the cons) and a certain amount of capital is required to make projects move, but it is the everyday people, both foreign and local, that are shaping the future of this city and beyond. It makes you want to do more yourself!
5. Work. There are plenty of pundits which define the U.S. – China bilateral relationship as one of the most important in the world. Of course all diplomatic work matters, but diplomatic work done in China is most definitely on the radar in Washington and Beijing. In whichever city you work, in whatever section you work, your contribution to the team effort is important. As part of the massive U.S. Consular effort in China, know that each tourist you approve to visit the U.S. spends an average of $5,400 during their trip. Every sixteen Chinese tourists to the U.S. supports one U.S. job. Last year that meant 1.8 million Chinese tourists spent over 2.1 billion dollars in the U.S. That number is expected to grow in 2015.
1. Poor Air Quality. It is very unfortunate with all the wonderful things that Shanghai has to offer that the pollution levels are at times too bad to spend much time outdoors. You will quickly bookmark the Consulate’s Air Quality Monitor link and even if a quick look out your window tells you the air is bad, you still check the AQM to find out just how bad.
2. Internet Access. You have probably heard by now that the Chinese government tightly controls access to the Internet and/or rather certain sites on the Internet. Over 2,700 sites actually. All you want to do is read the news on BBC, or get on to Facebook to post your latest photos from another day out in fabulous Shanghai, or send an email from your Gmail account, or watch a video on YouTube, or post to your WordPress blog, but every single one of these sites is inaccessible through the domestic Internet. In order to access such sites one must employ a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and it is a constant (and frustrating) cat and mouse game.
3. Costs. In 2014 Forbes ranked Shanghai the 10th most expensive city in the world. I talked about the high prices of many items in my post Lap of Luxury. There is a good reason that Foreign Service officers receive a 50% Cost of Living Adjustment here. Still I wonder who buys all of these luxury goods? Who can afford 200 RMB (US$32) for half a pound of cherries? The millionaires of course! Shanghai also ranks in the top ten cities with the most number of millionaires, over 166,000. There are also over 1000 multimillionaires and approximately 23 billionaires. If you have preschool aged children and want to send them to an international preschool (State Department does NOT cover this) get ready to fork out the dough. The average cost is US$24,000 a year. For preschool!
4. Crowded/Lack of Privacy. There are over 14 million people living in Shanghai so it is a pretty good assumption you will never, ever be alone. If you make the mistake of heading to IKEA or the Science and Technology museum on a rainy Saturday (guilty on both counts) be prepared for the deafening crowds. If you attempt to stop to look at a display it is very likely you will be carried away with the flow. I have had bags ripped from my hands on the subway as people jostled to get on and off the train. Once I even nearly lost hold of my three year old in a similar crowd and it was a terrifying moment. And speaking of adorable blonde three year old cherubs; if you happen to have one or two, cameras will constantly be pointed at your child. A quick stop to check a map and I can look up to find we are surrounded by cell phone camera wielding Chinese. If you look anything other than Chinese, then when out and about, it can feel a bit like living in a fishbowl.
5. Work. You will be busy. Very, very busy. As awesome as it is to be part of something as significant as the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, it is also important to have some downtime to enjoy some of Shanghai’s numerous diversions. There are many days when I simply do not have the energy to leave the apartment again once home. (good thing for #2 in the Pros)
EDIT: Honorable Mention PRO: I have already received a few messages letting me know I have been remiss in not mentioning two very fabulous aspects of any Shanghai/China tour. One would be massages. I hear ya. There is a massage place on just about every other block and if you can get off the main drag they are more than reasonably priced. Another is shopping. This country is the manufacturer of the world after all. Yet I am not talking about clothes and knock off electronics. Of course you can buy lovely chopstick sets, hand painted perfume bottles, and have your name carved into a Chinese chop. There are also furniture shops and pearl markets. So when the cons start to get you down have a massage to melt the stress away or indulge in a little retail therapy.